Clegg, Miliband and Cameron fight for centre ground

This year’s party conference season promised to be great theatre. Nick Clegg would be facing his party’s grumbling over the coalition with the Tories, whom most of hisdelegates cordially loathe.

Labour would be picking a new leader from a gene pool so narrow as to be laughable in a modern democracy.

And David Cameron would be facing activists still smarting from his failure to deliver an overall majority in May and worried that the prime minister is simply too comfortable with his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.

So far, those who were looking for fireworks have been disappointed.

The mood among Lib Dems was more upbeat than predicted. They were clearly happy to be wielding real influence at a national level for the first time in 65 years and less worried about how much of their manifesto they have had to give away to get there.

Vince Cable shocked the City with an outburst of banker bashing, but it was strictly for domestic consumption by his Liverpool audience and not taken seriously in Whitehall. If anything, it merely underlined that Cable is now odds on to be the next minister to resign.

Ed Miliband was my early tip to win Labour’s crown, while the bookies backed his brother, David. It was clear from the outset that Ed would play to the party’s members and trade unions with the strong left-wing message they wanted to hear, whereas his brother would be the whipping boy for the now-discredited New Labour regime.

Ed was in the same Labour cabinet as David, but shrewdly presented himself as much more detached than his brother. Now he has won, watch Ed move his rhetoric sharply to the right. Like David Cameron, he knows that elections are won and lost by who best appeals to that 20% of voters in the middle ground of politics whose allegiance can shift.

He started that process this week in Manchester. Most Tories will tell themselves in Birmingham next week that Ed is their dream candidate, because so far he has seemed the most left wing of the contenders, but they should not count their chickens too soon.

Hard task to master

David Cameron has enjoyed a solid start to his time as prime minister. He is benefiting from the inevitable honeymoon all new leaders enjoy but, having talked to him myself, I know that this is a man who is comfortable in his own skin, confident in his ability to lead and, more to the point, absolutely focused on what he sees as his inevitable mission: the reduction of our massive deficit.

It means that his message to his activists and the country at large will be tough and uncompromising. He has a massive job on his hands, as cuts of the size he wants have not been delivered since the 1920s.

Margaret Thatcher herself never actually reduced public spending – she merely slowed its growth. So far the public seem to be behind Cameron but he will remember Churchill’s maxim that we are all in favour of reductions in general and expenditure in particular. The public mood is notoriously fickle, so, even as he soaks up the delegates’ cheers in Birmingham, as he inevitably will, he will know in his heart that the really hard yards are yet to be walked.

Steven Norris is an adviser on transport and development to London mayor Boris Johnson